g

Haven Fair starring in the title role of “The Phantom of the Opera,” an original musical presented last year by LifeHouse Theater—one of the few stories in which masked actors are not out of place.

As we celebrate Independence Day this weekend, liberty is on the minds of many.

I know this firsthand because, as we grapple with reopening, our community theater company has just conducted a survey. We received nearly 700 responses. And folks are demanding freedom—freedom from masks, that is.

After Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent directive that masks must be worn at public events, our efforts to resume performances are stalled. Our survey indicates many citizens are not pleased with the mandate.

“To mask or not to mask, that is the question.”

If Hamlet led a theater company today, he might well frame the issue that way while pondering how performers and audiences may safely return. It’s certainly a matter of concern to our eleven staff members whose employment hangs in the balance.

Since no live theater can exist without audiences, I asked ours how comfortable they are returning to our venue. Will they return wearing masks? And will they come if the actors wear masks while performing?

The good news is that our audiences are eager to return. Those who insist on masks, combined with those willing to wear masks in order to attend, total nearly 80% of those responding. Folks willing to wear masks do so grudgingly, however.

On the other hand, hardly anyone wants to see masked performers on stage. Who can blame them? I don’t and neither do our actors.

Nearly 400 people wrote comments for our consideration. These fill 18 pages!

Most people seem sincere and well-intentioned. But there is also deep division out there in Survey Land—a microcosm of divisions in our nation.

Some folks wrote entire essays while others simply shared a phrase or two. Many clearly needed to vent their feelings and appreciated the opportunity. A few let us know their position by sharing links to petitions aimed at recalling the governor.

Some of those responding were particularly thoughtful.

“I know people dislike masks,” one person wrote, “but I’m willing to set aside some rights and comfort for the good of others.”

Another kind soul commented, “I figure if there’s a chance that a mask can protect others, then why not?”

Many others urged our company to “resist” and “fight the unlawful directive.” “It’s tyranny!” one wrote. These folks are either suspicious of the science, question the governor’s legal authority or both.

I’m no fan of government overreach, but I have one word for those who are urging us to flout the order: Liability. Who will pay for the potential pitfalls? Not our insurance company. And probably not the “resisters.” Their checks for a defense fund have not been forthcoming.

Many earnest folks are simply confused.

“So much inconsistency bothers me,” wrote an ambivalent woman. “Some say masks work, some say they’re better than nothing, and some say they’re worthless. The so-called studies are all over the map and even top officials contradict themselves.”

A few comments were poignant.

“I shouldn’t have to stay home due to my condition just because others think a mask is stupid,” wrote an older respondent. “And if masks didn’t work to protect others, doctors and nurses wouldn’t wear them.”

Another legitimate concern was expressed by a caregiver.

“I’m worried about bringing the virus home to my elderly mother,” she wrote. “I worry about vulnerable people.”

One of the saddest comments: “It wouldn’t make any difference what I thought.” Well, dear sir, your opinion certainly matters to me. But a sense of hopelessness does pervade many of the comments.

The entire topic induces anger in some people. “The language I would use is not becoming to my faith,” wrote one.

Another demanded to know, “Why are the healthy people quarantined?”

He mistook me for someone who has the answer.

A gratifying number of comments expressed sympathy.

“Our family is so sorry your theater has to face this impossible situation,” wrote one respondent.

Comedian Steve Allen observed: “Many people are not searching for truth. They are merely looking for information that substantiates what they already believe.” His observation may help explain the division we see all around us.

I remain confident our live community theater will re-open. Our staff will be joining me when it does. We pray it will be soon. We will make our season subscribers whole and we’ll continue to reach out to the community through our YouTube channel and other means.

But we’ll be doing it all as volunteers — just as soon as we return from the unemployment office.

Wayne R. Scott is an award-winning writer, producer and director who is president of LifeHouse Theater, Redlands